Last Friday the "human resources" consultancy Technologia sent an interim report to France Telecom (FT) saying that the company has but "a few weeks" to put in place new personnel practices after a period of uncharacteristic and ill-judged macho-management at the carrier was blamed for a spate of staff suicides that precipitated a major corporate crisis. Over the weekend that report was leaked to the press. Martyn Warwick reports.
The Technologia report, broken in the French Sunday newspapers and by the International Herald Tribune, unequivocally states that France Telecom's new top management (the previous CEO, Didier Lombard, fell on his sword as the crisis deepened and the French government got involved in the innermost workings of what is ostensibly a private company) must move as quickly as possible “to take charge and encourage radical change” if it is to recover its former status in the eyes of the public, shareholders, workers analysts, the French state and indeed the country as a whole.
The report had been commissioned by the incumbent national telco in the torrid aftermath of the suicides, since 2008, of 43 employees of France Telecom. Families of the deceased and FT's trades unions have claimed that the suicides were a direct and forseeable result of job changes ruthlessly driven through, forced relocation of staff, endless reorganisations and restructurings, the sudden closure of work sites and units and job cutting exercises.
After the Sarkozy administration stepped into the affair FT agreed to discontinue a series of programmes and initiatives that had been identified by staff and unions as being "particularly disruptive" and the new CEO, Stéphane Richard, has been told that the carrier has next to no time to prove that it has learned some lessons and reverts to a more enlightened, inclusive and collaborative form of management - or things will get worse.
That'll be a tall order and an FT spokesperson, Jean-Bernard Orsoni, whilst admitting that the company is indeed in receipt of the Technologia report,and is now in negotiation about the implementations of its recommendations with various trades unions.
He added, somewhat plaintively, "but we don’t have a magic wand that we can wave and just fix the problem in a few weeks."
The report itself is based on findings distilled from 500 personal interviews undertaken with FT employees who were asked to air their grievances with the carrier's management practices in the greatest detail.
The result is a list of 107 recommendations that include a move away from what has been called "the testosterone-fuelled confrontational management style apparently adopted by FT's senior management after seeing the movie 'Wall Street' too many times". It also recommends that FT's bloated human resources department be slimmed down and made more transparent, accountable and accessible. Furthermore, the report says FT must impose a moratorium on any further reorganisation exercises, must provide a system to monitor "psychological risk factors" and must deploy a team of "mediators" to work with staff who have been discommoded by the telco's change management programmes.
Technologia adds that FT must streamline and simplify its management structure and create "clear lines of authority" within the organisation. The bottom line, Technologia says, is that "actions should accompany all the talk."
Critics of both the "crisis" and its aftermath say the whole thing has been blown out of proportion by the trades unions, the media and the government and point out that the suicides at France Telecom fall well within the bell curve of what is statistically probable within any group or organisation the size of the incumbent French telco.
That may well be so but it is evident that something has been amiss at the carrier. FT still retains vestiges of the lumbering bureaucratic state-owned juggernaut it used to be. Many of the company's employees are established civil servants, with everything that implies, a job for life, an index-linked guaranteed pension, lots of leave and plenty of public holidays, short and easy hours, overmanning, a lack of accountability to the public and customers and so on.
There can be little doubt that FT needed to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century but it seems that the carrier's management went too far and too fast down the macho-management route and failed utterly to carry its workforce along. And like it or loathe it, in France the trades unions are still powerful bodies able to bring any company to its knees if they believe occasion demands it - as they did a in this case. And when the government weighs in on their side, that company is on a hiding to nothing. As France Telecom and its bosses have found to their cost.
A soft voice turneth away wrath. A bunch of brash bullies get right up everyone's noses and foment anger and opposition. Here endeth the lesson.
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